For starters, airfare to Switzerland is at an all time low. And despite carnival timeframe at the ski areas, the lodging rates were reasonable.
One of the most interesting things about Zermatt is its progressive attitude about the environment. Internal combustion engines are outlawed, period. Cars have to be left at a railroad station several miles away and one can either take the train in, or X-country ski into the town. Public transportation is free (electro-buses) and taxis (electric vans) are plentiful and cheap. The locals are an extremely friendly bunch, believing themselves to be the real Swiss (Valais Canton was one of the main historical strongholds of Swiss independence) and the simplicity and candidness of the people was enchanting. Also, they're a hearty people for whom skiing is a way of life. The crowd was much older than one would find in the US. Visibly older people, I mean in their 80's, were going up and down the area, and for some, skiing is a mode of transportation into town.
Zermatt is a stone throw away from the Matterhorn, right under its shadow, and as a matter of fact, some of the runs are built on the Theodul Glacier that streams out of the mountain. On the other side of the Swiss side, one can leave the gondola and ski into Italy's Cervinia resort.
Conditions were fair to good at the base in Zermatt town, as some of the town trails had no snow. But as soon as one got above 6,000 feet, the conditions were good to excellent, and above 8,000 feet all the way up to 13,000+, it was awesome.
We had two good storms when we were there, depositing about 10 inches at the mid-latitudes, but reaching severe blizzard conditions above treeline. Zero visibility with raging winds. But the next day it was clear in a million.
Cervinia, Italy, was also an excellent place to ski and enjoy. Lots more snow than Zermatt, and with a southern exposure, the sun shone all the time. Unlike the Swiss side with dark woods, sober temperaments and compulsive punctuality, Cervinia's hotels were bright, colorful, and with more sun, dotted with outdoor swimming pools full of people. And the food........
I would recommend Zermatt any time. Some of its idiosyncracies for anyone interested in traveling there: 1) As in anywhere in Switzerland, they are time-obsessesed and may cancel your dinner reservations after five minutes. 2) With more than 7,000" vertical, one has to plan the gondola rides that sometimes involve a cog train, two gondolas and a T-bar, or three gondolas, or a funnicular and three gondolas, ad nauseam. Simply, it takes an hour to go to the top. But then the opportunities are endless. 3) Europeans don't make lines for anything. Enjoy the cattle ride and don't get upset about being elbowed, pushed, or simply transported into and out of a gondola sort of as a sardine pack. You don't even have to walk -- the crowd will carry you inside. 4) Learn the trail signs, which are indeed clear although it takes time to learn them. You're skiing above tree line and in glaciers. A false turn and you may fall down a crevice or a precipice. 5) Low-fat doesn't exist. 6) Even the screw-top wine bottles are excellent -- Zermatt is on the Rhone River headwaters -- all they do is put a cork on the bottle, ship it to the States as "Appellation Rhone etc", and charge us twenty times what you can pay for it over there. 7) They take their ecology seriously. 8) A refreshing change of pace. They tend to look at Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell as funny cartoon characters rather than as menaces to democracy. 9) Absolutely great skiing.
As far as the older folks, there were from all kinds. Yes, there is gobs and gobs of money there. Sort of like an Aspen, even though other resorts like St. Moritz or Davos can compete very well with Zermatt. I met many people from Spain, France, Germany, obviously Swiss, Nordics, and Brits. And among the Swiss there were both locals and weekenders.
An unusual angle about living there that I learned is that one must live in the village (or perhaps the Canton) about seven years before being able to buy property there. So the folks who lived there were acclimated as locals and had assimilated into the local culture. That explains the older crowd, other than the fact that skiing is definitely a way of life and without internal combustion cars (thank God), skiing is a really valid means of transportation. Another factor is that unlike our country, where inactivity and the automobile has turned our countrymen and women into the most obese people on earth, Europeans in general and specifically the Swiss are lean and fit from the daily exercise. We were all amazed when we saw what appeared to be about an 85-year-old white-haired little old lady walk into the gondola to get to her house halfway up, skis and everything. That's awesome.
But there were also huge numbers of college kids, younger yuppies, DINKs, and DIWKs. The bars at night were hopping. There was a bustling expat bar called the Pink Elephant that doubled as the Internet Cafe of the town. Great place to meet people.
I am going back next year, perhaps St. Moritz, perhaps Davos, but also maybe a repeat of Zermatt.
On the expense: Believe it or not.... it was cheaper to fly and spend ten days in Switzerland than to fly to Denver, Vail or Aspen and spend the same amount of time. Some considerations:
Airfare to Europe is in the low season. As a result, good deals abound. Even including hotel. American carriers consider every month as whatever the market will bear. And European airlines have one thing that American flag carriers forgot long time ago: service.
Virtually all hotels in Zermatt, Davos, etc. include breakfast
You don't have to rent a car. As a matter of fact, cars are not allowed within 10 miles of Zermatt. So substract $300 from the outing. And buses are free.
Wine is cheaper than water.
Tipping is minimized in Europe.
Having said that, I wonder why I spent ten days at Aspen two months ago when I could have had two weeks in Europe, or a week in Europe and another one in Canada, for the same price.....
[This message has been edited by lbotta (edited 03-13-2000).]
One other idiosyncrasy to add to your list:
10) Despite the overall fitness of the inhabitants, they smoke like chimneys there! It's especially noticeable in the winter, when there are no open windows or doors in the restaurants and bars. Take coat hangers to air your clothes outside overnight.
The Smoking..... Yes, the smoking..... I had forgot about it, thanks for reminding me...
It was really amazing, mean funny, oh well, pathetic, some of the folks at the top of the Klein Matterhorn gondola, smoking at above 14,000 feet!!! To put it in perspective, an airline depressurizing at that altitude would have to put everyone on oxygen. Bells, whistles, and alarms would be ringing in the cabin. The hotels at La Paz, Bolivia, three thousand feet below that altitude, offer their guests O2 masks and bottles so they can get around. Going upstairs four stories in Quito at 9,000 feet, five thousand feet below Klein Matterhorn, can be an excruciating experience even for a fit person. So these smoking folks must have been in REALLY good shape to smoke and not die at that altitude... That, or the addiction is so strong that nothing stands in the way.
Jet Lag: I had none going over. I am a pilot and used to fly to Europe a lot. My technique going over to Europe, as well as anywhere travling East, was to land, and go about my business until bedtime that night. Then I would wake up the next morning fresh as a daisy. On this particular flight to Zurich, I was able to upgrade and had a great flight. Slept most of the way and woke up right before breakfast. Then I awoke in Zurich and went on until the night.
Going Westward.... that's another thing altogether. I'm still recovering. My circadean rythm is all screwed up (and it normally takes a week to recover) after more than a week.
Bottom line for jet lag recovery: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. The humidity in a jet on a long flight can go as low as 3%, with above 40% deemed comfortable. Just breathing the air dehydrates you. Couple that with about three or four glasses of wine, followed by as many visits to the lavatory, and it is a recipe for headaches that day. With the added stress of circadean rythm disruption, it can be a formula for a ruined vacation.